September 2017

Nicaragua? It's smiles better! One traveller is gripped by a trip through the Panama Canal

How else could you visit California, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, the Bahamas and Florida in two weeks, not go through airport hell and only have to pack and unpack your suitcase once? I was on a Holland America cruise to write about Colombia. But sadly, Cartagena on the northern tip of that country turned out to be such a jam-packed, elbow-to-elbow tourist resort that we were only too happy to flee, re-embark to the safe retreat of our cabin and wait to sail off on one of the four cruise ships that had decanted some 12,000 visitors into this city on that day alone. But Nicaragua… Cruise liners don't block its small port, and tourists are still a novelty. This is a country racked by civil war until only a few years ago, now picking itself up, dusting itself off and opening its arms to the rest of the world.

Paradise found: a shot of Leon a colourful city in western Nicaragua

Here we turned out to be the attraction, quietly stared at by the local inhabitants who were curious and courteous.  Yes, at last, a place not trodden flat and pulverised by battalions of new arrivals every 24 hours, filled with locals dying to tell us that Nicaraguans are the most friendly folk in all Central America.

We docked on the west coast at the small port of Corinto and travelled by bus inland to the town of Chinandega. 

Our guide, Luis, gripped us with the story of how he had been forced to fight with the revolutionary Sandinistas during the civil war, how he had seen his best friend killed, while taking shrapnel himself in his right knee.

We stopped briefly in the old town of El Viego to visit the 17th Century colonial church with its magnificent mahogany roof which resonated with history and, on a boiling hot day outside, provided a welcome cool break.

Several of us pottered round the covered market, much to the astonishment of the locals who smiled and shook hands with us. 

Action shot: While he was in Nicaragua, Tom watched a small group of dancers perform a couple of Nicaraguan/Spanish dances in their national dress

There were no beggars, no polyester T-shirt stalls, just housewives shopping among the colourful range of raw meats, fruit and vegetables, and stallholders who offered us oranges. And the friendly faces… I couldn’t get used to just being smiled at.

As we entered Chinandega, Luis guided us through streets with broken pavements while shopkeepers came out to watch us shyly or occasionally wish us ‘buenos dias’. 

We finished up in the courtyard of another grand colonial church just off the town square where a small group of dancers performed a couple of Nicaraguan/Spanish dances in their national dress. 

These fresh young things put their heart, soul and nimble legs into their work and glowed to our applause.

Next, into a local artisan shop where I discovered, hidden and neglected behind some clothes, the most beautiful hand-made wooden vase at a price so low that I felt obliged to offer more than asked.

Was it locally made? You bet. Handcrafted by a man who lives in the foothills of the local volcano. I wish I’d had time for a visit to see how it was made and order a dozen more.

Around us, the town square throbbed with life. We stopped and sat on benches and drank it all in. I wished we could have spent much, much longer in this still desperately poor, but very hospitable land.

A quick mention, too, of next-door Guatemala and a rushed visit to the town of Antigua and the jade museum. This strange, smooth stone is Guatemala’s gold, much faked, but all the museum jade is guaranteed kosher. 

Green gold: In Guatemala, Tom visited a museum in the town of Antigua, where he discovered that jade is worth a fortune and it is often faked

Here we learned to observe the four Cs for buying jade: colour, clarity, character and cut. But the real experts never ever look at the jade they are asked to evaluate. They operate solely by touch, just like a blind man tuning a piano.

The high point of the cruise was to squeeze our big ship east through the narrow hips of the Panama Canal to the Caribbean Sea. 

A guide on board maintained a running commentary as we rose and sank through the locks, and bumped against the canal’s all-too-tight walls. A trip through this wonder of the world, flanked by jungle and ospreys diving for dinner in the lake segments of the canal, is an experience to savour.

On board we had a huge cabin at not too huge a price, and room service was impeccable. The food was pretty good, nobody queued for anything and the organisation of tours was faultless. 

These are not really trips for children or energetic teens, and I was relieved for once not to be the oldest man on board a vessel where grey hair was de rigueur.

Come fly with me? No way, José, I’ll stick to my water wings as long as there are liners.

Travel Facts:

Holland America (, 0843 374 2300) offers a 14-night Panama Canal cruise from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale departing on December 8 and costing from £1,599pp (cruise only) or £2,159pp (including return flights from London).


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